I was talking to myself about 2020 being a year that will be remembered for generations due to the Covid 19 pandemic. I particularly kept thinking about what this pandemic means for children. This is because everything seemed to happen so fast after the President announced the lock down in March. Parents were asked to pick children from schools even as public transport was closed down. Remember this was an emergency as there was no time for teachers to prepare children to go back home as usual, no speech days, no end of term party, no sports days that schools usually use to transition children from school to going home for holidays. Schools in Uganda host about 15 million
students. Most of them are congested and in his speech, the President said having the students at school with the virus spreading among gatherings would have provided a fertile ground for further spread. He had no choice but to ask schools to close.
What was the impact of the panic of caretakers as they picked their children from school? As my mind wondered and reflected on this and other questions, it brought me back to the refugee children I work with on a daily basis; unaccompanied children living in Kampala and in the settlements, not forgetting over 15,000 children living on the streets that depend on leftovers from people working within the city.
How were they going to survive? For many refugee children, emergency situations like war and conflict define their lives. Many have gone through abrupt changes like running long distances to safety, separation from loved ones, seeing their loved ones being killed etc. School often provides a safer and stable environment that helps to restore a sense of normalcy, dignity and hope by providing more predictable structured schedules. When schools are closed abruptly, what does this mean to the refugee children who have seen emergencies before? Could this arouse memories of past experiences and compromise their psychological wellbeing?
In Kampala specifically, the majority of refugees live their lives on a hand to mouth basis. Without movement and unable to do small businesses they cannot sustain their families for even a day let alone months. This leaves many families unable to afford the most basic needs including food and medical care. The crowded spaces many live in, in the slums of Kampala even make social distancing a dream. While other children are able to learn from TV, radio and over the internet, refugee children and other vulnerable children in Uganda are not able to afford this. Information coming from some of the refugee survivor-led support groups indicates that many caretakers are reporting increased signs of distress among their children.
As we go through this crisis it is important to reflect on some of the psychosocial effects it is having and may continue to have on the most vulnerable children in our country. Some of these may include; behavioral problems with more children acting out both in school and home, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), abuse and neglect, dropping out of school as caretakers may find it impossible to raise fees after depleting everything they had, but also children failing to concentrate in school due to trauma. Children need and will need a lot of physical and psychosocial support to regain their normal life and get back on to their journey to achieve their potential. Without proper planning of these interventions, many refugee children and other vulnerable children will fall through the cracks and will never be what they are meant to be.
This is a call to government, humanitarian actors and other development actors, including schools, to prepare interventions for both children and their caretakers. For if we do not, then beyond the lockdown, and beyond COVID19, another crisis awaits the world – a crisis of traumatised children.
Psychosocial Trainee – Mental Health and Psychosocial Wellbeing Programme